DIARY 22 January 1968 Scientific method

Scientific method


Chelsea College in the early 1960s.

At Chelsea College I became a scientist, white coat and all. Doing experiments rather than watching them as we had done in school. As pharmacists we had to know a lot – botany, anatomy, chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, neuroscience. Even physics; the science behind making a medicinal tablet is astonishing. Just imagine; each tablet has to have an exact measured dose, bulked up with an inert substance, compressed so that it remains firm, and uncontaminated. All that for an aspirin.

It was odd therefore that one of our first practical sessions was to learn how to make pills in the nineteenth-century manner. A pointless exercise, even for historical reasons. The main requirement for success was sweaty palms. Thank goodness for tablet manufacture.

Dope under the scope 2

Dope under the ‘scope.

Botany meant studying plants under a microscope, not just to identify them but to assess their medicinal worth. Perhaps it was a sign of the times but the sample I had to investigate was marijuana. A very small sample it was; you don’t need much for a microscope slide.

Muscular system

Studying anatomy made me feel like a doctor although learning lists of bones, muscles and so on was never my forte. I did at least learn how all my internal organs fitted together. And I could dream of wierd voyages amongst the Islets of Langerhans, through the Sphincter of Pylorus to the lacunae of Morgagni, passing the Zonule of Zinn.

I found biochemistry fascinating. My pin-up poster was of the Krebs Cycle[1] with its circular process of chemical changes showing how all organisms release stored energy through oxidation of chemicals derived from carbohydrates, fats and proteins. And all done within each cell of the body.

Pharmacology, the study of how substances act on cells, organs or the whole organism, was central to my studies. Such experiments could not always be done in a test tube. Sometimes we had to use living creatures (go to the next paragraphs if you might find the details upsetting). To demonstrate how drugs can act on the body, we would be given live frogs prepared by a technician who had a special skill in scrambling their brains by inserting a needle in the back of their heads. The live but brain-dead creature would then be given shots of nicotine to stimulate its muscles; the poor thing could be made to jump at will.


Titration in action.

As it turned out I had a special skill in quantitative analysis in chemistry. The equipment was relatively simple – burettes, pipettes, conical flasks, very accurate chemical balances. But it needed a steady hand and accurate observation and recording. I could work out the composition of a chemical solution using titration or distillation. Fifty years later I would have no idea what that means. My supervisor suggested that, even in my first year, I should consider doing research or even a PhD.

But I had other diversions.


[1] Krebs won a Nobel prize for it.

DIARY 12 October 1967 First days at university


The impressive frontage of Chelsea College along Manresa Road[1], London SW3.

An open book

I joined the other freshers for our introductory talk in the wood-panelled lecture theatre which dated back to the 1890s. The lecturer must have been in his thirties and, due to his low status in the academic hierarchy, he was given the job of introducing the college to us oiks. We would not be introduced to the senior lecturers for some time.

This lecturer was dressed in the academics’ relaxed garb of tweed jacket, knitted tie and slacks. No academic gown but the college had only just become a university[2]. He was as bemused as we were; he commented on the fact that two or three of us men were wearing pink shirts which should not have been surprising since we were just one hundred feet from the boutique-laden King’s Road, Chelsea.

No register, no class timetable, no uniform, no compulsory sports, time off to read. We could even smoke in lectures although no-one did. It wasn’t much like school after all. I reckoned I could deal with this. I had a good education, passed my exams to get there, there was enough money to get by, and I had somewhere to live.

I tried to make friends but it was not long before I discovered how different I was from my fellow students. They, mainly men but a few women, appeared to have all grown up in the suburbs of London or Surrey. The first person I tried to strike up a conversation with had grown up in Surbiton which already had a reputation as the archetypal suburbia with social pretensions[3]. Several were the children of pharmacists or doctors; I decided to keep quiet about my origins.

They all had middle class accents; no sign of Cockney, not even the odd ‘gie us a butchers’. I was looking forward to meeting my first real Londoners but it would not be at Chelsea College. There weren’t many regional accents either. My Birmingham lilt confused some who asked if I came from Liverpool and did I know the Beatles? I admit to trying to change my accent, not because I was ashamed of it but because I was fed up with explaining that that I was not Liverpudlian. I did notice a distinct drop in interest when I revealed from whence I hailed so I just said I was from Acton.

I didn’t make any friends at college. They all went back to Surbiton or Wimbledon at the end of the day whereas I was on a voyage of discovery. No-one was interested in poking around the pubs of Soho, or the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, or slumming it in Covent Garden (still, at that time, a fruit and veg market, not the tourist trap it is today). I wanted to explore not just places and events but culture and ideas.

Chelsea_College_Library_at_Manresa_Road,_1970s_  manresa-road-ref-copy

The public library, Manresa Road, outside and inside, where I discovered much.

I had not read much as a teenager; science exams and spending evenings at a youth club left little time for inspirational or enjoyable reading. At school the fiction I read off-curriculum was a couple of Hardy’s Wessex novels, a bit of Tolkien and I quite liked Dylan Thomas. Whilst growing up, however, we had a small library at home; an alcove bookshelf next to the fireplace and behind the television. These had been bought by Dad either in bulk round about the time I was born or through a book club. Most were published by a company called Odhams whose books you rarely saw in shops.

My father will never know how grateful I was for this library. There were encyclopedias, history books, photograph albums, novels, popular science texts, how to make and do things. I must have read them all, several times. Then I would go to the public library in Bournville to find more books. When I had read everything of interest in the children’s section, by the age of ten or eleven, I was in the adult section absorbing anything that appealed at the time including Scottish history, steam engines, electronics, radio comedy scripts, Punch magazine, philately. Not much imaginative writing however; no novels, just a little poetry.

Diary 671002 First day at university

I devoured these brilliant books. And more, including Turgenev, Camus, Kafka, Anouilh etc.

In Chelsea, the public library and the college next door were symbiotic; I could borrow books using my college library card. It became my haven where I discovered French and Russian novels; German, British and American poetry, existentialist literature, absurd theatre, modern English and American writers and so much more.

I was on the road to ruin; I would never be the same again. In the evening I would go back to Acton, to Mrs Haggar, Jeffrey and Rusty. With no television or even a radio I would carry on reading.

[1] The building was sold off to property developers and by 2015 Manresa Road was considered to be the third most expensive street in England with average property prices approaching £7.5 million. As I write, a seven-bedroom flat is for sale at £25.5 million. Just a few years ago it was the home for students, artists, writers. Now it is an expensive sterile desert. I also think this is a photoshopped picture – the building was never this long!

[2] The college was built in 1895 as a high level academic institution devoted to science and technology, as opposed to the humanitarian objectives of established universities. Other advanced institutes were established as ‘polytechnics’ at the time, taking their inspiration from the Ecole Polytechnic set up by Napoleon in Paris. The college awarded degrees endorsed by the University of London until it was given university status in 1966.

[3] A popular British sitcom of the 1970s, The Good Life, was set in Surbiton. It contrasted the lives of neighbours, one couple attempting to be self-sufficient by turning their suburban home into a small holding and their upwardly mobile, snobbish neighbours.

DIARY 5 August 1967 Mysteries of the apothecary

774BristolRoadSouth Boots JPEG  harborne-high-street-c1955 JPEGharborne-prince-s-corner-c1965 JPEG

Harborne High Street, Birmingham. Top left. A typical Boots the Chemist shop in 1955 in Northfield. Top right. Harborne High Street in 1955. Boots was to the right, out of picture, if I recall. These are bit early for 1967 but I like the Jowett Javelin car and the Woolworth sign. Bottom. General view of Harborne High Street as it was in the late 1960s. Harborne was always a bit posher, being close to Edgbaston. Now it has a Waitrose where I think Boots was.

Mysteries of the apothecary

I needed a holiday job before going to university to study pharmacy so becoming a dispensing assistant at Boots[1] the Chemist in Harborne[2] was a logical choice. Please note the job title; an ‘assistant’, not just a delivery boy or floor scrubber as I had been before. I got to wear a white coat.

This was more than protective clothing; it demonstrated your place in the jobs hierarchy. If you wore blue overalls, you got your hands dirty, and your overalls were usually dirty as well. The foreman, who told the people in blue overalls what to do, wore a brown coat. He did not usually get his hands dirty so his coat would have been clean. However, if you wore a white coat, you were never going to get your hands dirty. Your immaculate coat proved your superiority.

At school, I had been good at science, especially biology. I was fascinated by the complexity of cells; the structure of DNA[3] was a wonder. I procured a poster which detailed the various processes of the Krebs Cycle[4] like a magic spell that turned chemistry into life. This is what drew me to chemistry and biology. I did not think of myself as a swot (the word for nerd in those days). But I was delighted when I discovered a second-hand book for next to nothing which explained the structures and reactions of ketones and aldehydes[5].

I was still essentially a shop assistant. But at least I did not have to sweep or scrub. A chemist’s shop was not self-service, as most shops are today. I had to learn quickly not to be embarrassed when a woman would ask for tampons, or an older person would ask for suppositories. There was always a way out of a difficulty, for both myself and the customer, by suggesting we call the pharmacist. I was still floored when a man walked in one day and cheerily asked for a dozen Durex without any sign of embarrassment. It was my face that went red.

Fifty years ago, medicines were not supplied in bubble packs or in measured doses. They would arrive in bulk, up to 500 tablets in a drum, or half a gallon of liquid. My job was to decant tonic, syrup or linctus into smaller brown bottles and attach a personalised label. Plastic screw tops lids had just been introduced and some older people were suspicious because they did not have a cork. I had to count the tablets into even smaller bottles, or small white card boxes, add a piece of cotton wool to stop them rattling, and then the label.

We had a simple gadget for counting tablets. A triangular tray which arranged them in rows starting with one at the apex, two in the next row, then three etc. I simply counted the rows which immediately gave me the total number of tablets. I still remember that seven rows equal four weeks’ supply at one a day.

Dispensing pharmaceuticals meant only counting and measuring. Although the shop had a shelf or two of old jars with abbreviated Latin names on them, no-one made up ointments or mixed potions any more. Nevertheless, I am sure that a present-day pharmacist would be bemused by the meagre stock carried by a chemist in the 1960s. Nowadays, there is a vast range of different medications, with pre-packaged doses in similar cartons. Pharmacists today have mechanised revolving shelving to allow them to store and keep track of the ever-multiplying products of the pharmaceutical industry[6].

It was just for a few weeks but it gave me a few pounds to take to London with me. I could also say that I had experienced life as a pharmacist and had earned the right to wear a white coat.

[1] Boots the Chemist is one of the long-established retail business which can now be seen in virtually every high street or shopping mall. John Boot established his herbalist shop in Nottingham in 1849 and since then it has grown into an international brand. In 1967, one of its main rivals on the high street was Timothy White’s & Taylor’s, chemists. In 1968, Boots took over their 662 branches.

[2] Harborne is a suburb near to Selly Oak on the western side of Birmingham. It was close to Birmingham University and Queen Elizabeth Hospital and so attracted academic and medical professionals. I would travel there by taking the Outer Circle route number 11. Despite being close to where I lived I had never, in my memory, been to Harborne before.

[3] The structure of DNA was elucidated in 1953 following work by James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. The study of DNA and the processes of the cell cycle such as mitosis and meiosis were part of my ‘A’ level curriculum in the 1960s. I continue to be astonished by genetics, the genome, and the possibilities which were inconceivable fifty years ago.

[4] Sir Hans Krebs (1900 – 1981) was a pioneering biochemist who described how cells produce energy from the breakdown of glucose in a process called the citric acid cycle, often referred to as the Krebs Cycle.

[5] Ketones and aldehydes are organic compounds with similar structures. They can be highly reactive, such as formaldehyde which is used to produce bakelite. Acetone is a ketone which is solvent used for thinning paint. To know the difference at age 18 meant you were a nerd.

[6] Damien Hurst turned a pharmacy shelf into an artwork and even used it as the theme for a restaurant. Mr Boot would not have been amused.


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DIARY 27 Jul 1967 On the brink

1966 Derek Perry retouch

The way I looked when I was a schoolboy. Note the school tie, tied with the narrow end showing, with a Windsor knot, wide end tucked in the shirt. For some reason, I am not wearing my fashionable black square-rimmed glasses. My hair was fair and curly, a bit of a disappointment because I could not style it as a ‘Beatle-cut’.

On the brink

Today is my girlfriend’s birthday. She has just turned 17 and goes to school in Bournville. I am 18 and have just finished school in Kings Heath.[1] I am waiting for my ‘A’ level results to see if I will be going to university in London in October.

I met my girlfriend the previous year at a youth club. I had walked other girls home from the same club but, as relationships go, they often didn’t last longer than that walk home. Some only allowed me to take them home for safety’s sake, including one girl who I considered to be very pretty with the latest bobbed hair style. The next night, my best friend walked her home; she must have like him a lot more than me because they are still married to each other.

This girlfriend was different to the other girls I had met. She was intelligent and knowledgeable. She read a lot and went to see arty films and knew about obscure musicians. She taught me how to pronounce ‘Dvořák’. I was also considered to be highly intelligent; that is a fact and not a boast.[2] But I was very ignorant of culture, politics, geography, history, literature. You don’t get these things at a boy’s school; we had sport and science.

My girlfriend opened the door to culture. We went to see foreign films, visited art galleries, listened to folk and jazz records, and went dancing. I can’t remember what we might have done to celebrate her birthday but it could well have been a Swedish film, perhaps by Ingmar Bergman. I recall seeing Smiles of a Summer Night with her.  In Birmingham, in those days, the only place to see foreign films was the Cinephone cinema on Bristol Street. This was not an art house movie theatre by any means; its staple fare was soft porn, usually Scandinavian. Bergman was probably shown simply because it was Swedish.

Until then, my life had been unremarkable. Within the petty hierarchies of family, school and church I had achieved some recognition; eldest son, head boy at primary school and class leader at Sunday school.  My place was assured and comfortable. Physical horizons were limited and stretched not much further than school and church (later replaced by the youth club). Intellectual horizons were equally narrow and my personal mental map was a landscape lacking in imagination.

I did not really know why I wanted to go to university, especially one in London. I was clever and going to university seemed to be what clever people did. I could see Birmingham University’s tower from Raddlebarn Road, so I could at least imagine what university looked like if only at a distance. I thought it was just a bigger school with lots of people who studied a lot. My mental image of a student was someone with glasses wearing a tweed jacket, tie and a college scarf round his neck. I had chosen a subject (pharmacy) that was only available in a few places, including Nottingham and London. My future was decided when I was offered a place at Chelsea College of Science and Science and Technology, newly recognised as a college of the University of London.

There I was, somewhat naïve, waiting to go to Chelsea which was in the throes of being ‘swinging’ London. This boy, whose mind was already being stirred by new ideas and experiences, was beginning his personal voyage of discovery. It would prove to be eventful.

[1] King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys, Vicarage Road, Kings Heath.

[2] Some years later, in my late thirties, I went for some psychological tests to assess my mental health. They established (I forget the precise mathematical formulation) that if you took a group of 1000 people with a similar background to mine, I would be in the top five according to my ability to solve certain intelligence tests. Their conclusion was that I was probably bored because I was too intelligent. Perhaps like Marvin the Paranoid Android in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Marvin is the spaceship’s robot, afflicted with severe depression and boredom, because he has a ‘brain the size of a planet’. I am not sure that I trust a diagnosis of mental illness based on a humorous fictional fantasy.